Mispillion Harbor Reserve Bringing Back Red Knot, Shorebirds

$5M seawall and groin project dedicated this week by USFWS, Over 15 shorebird species migrating through Milford-area, feasting on crab egg

Shorebirds at Mispillion Harbor

Red Knot, a heartier member of the sandpiper family, migrate along specific routes stopping to refuel at the same places every year including right here in Milford, Del. at the Mispillion Harbor Reserve. Their migration spans two continents and a 20,000 mile route from the tip of South America to the Arctic Circle and back. They fatten-up at Mispillion Harbor along a jetty and sandy isthmus habitat which is the nesting ground for horseshoe crab for the next leg of their amazing trek.

Last week, Senators Tom Carper, Chris Coons and DNREC Secretary Shawn M. Garvin dedicated the reclamation of the dike, groin and wall which protects this habitat including the north wall extension and southern arm of boulders and sand which protect the dunes.

During their northward migration, the federally endangered Red Knot make just a few stops to eat. Delaware Bay, with its predictable abundance of millions of horseshoe crab eggs, is an important stopover location where birds gather in great numbers of species to consume the eggs, a unique food source that allows the birds to rapidly gain weight, before continuing their exhausting journeys.

However, Hurricane Sandy and the more recent nor’easters severely eroded beaches and damaged habitats of horseshoe crabs in Mispillion Harbor, in turn affecting the populations of Red Knot and other shorebirds that depend on them. In response, DNREC state officials launched the Mispillion Harbor Restoration project to restore this crucial habitat and to help reduce flooding in nearby communities. Today, that work is finished and Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons last Friday joined state officials from DNREC to commemorate the dedication of the harbor resiliency project.

“Red Knot are attracted to the Mispillion site because of its exceptionally large concentration of horseshoe crabs eggs—the largest concentration within Delaware Bay. This location is also typically protected from winds and storms,” said Jeremey Ashe, construction manager of the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife who has been overseeing the project. Even the width and slope of the beach contributes to making it a preferred spot for the crabs to come lay their eggs in this particular location.”

“The new restoration project has been successful in providing additional spawning habitat, and additional foraging and roosting habitat for migratory shorebirds, and for Red Knots in particular, as well as increase overall shoreline resiliency,” said Ashe.

The $4.5 million initiative was funded by the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program, administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The four-year project is now completed.

One main focus of the project was the restoration of a dike—a stone wall that runs from north to south and terminates at the Back Beach. The wall was built several decades ago to protect the harbor; however, its height was not sufficient to ward off flooding from strong storms like Hurricane Sandy.

To enhance its ability to shield the shore from waves, DNREC had the dike raised on average three feet and added groins to the beach to block winds and protect the sand.

“What these groins do is they basically lock the sand in place, and also help accumulate sand so you can build the beach up from the natural sediment that is in the water,” said Ashe. Workers will have placed 40,000 cubic yards of sand, all of which rebuilt and restored the shoreline and ultimately recreated the favored conditions conducive for horseshoe crabs to lay their eggs in large numbers again.

Karen Bennett, the DNREC project lead, quoted the famous movie when she said: “If you build it, they will come!” She added: “This is the most visible and most successful conservation project on which I have ever been involved in my career.”

Slaughter Beach is a nearby town of about 365 homes. Its mayor, Harry Ward, said the restoration is one of the big beach nourishment projects that have occurred in Mispillion Harbor since he moved there 14 years ago. He is excited that the project will bring many benefits to the town and its residents.

He was especially gratified when workers closed a breach at the northern end of the dike that prevents the Mispillion River from flowing out of the structure. “When we would have a nor’easter, with heavy tides, that breach allowed a lot of water to go back up into the marsh,” Ward said. “We had some road flooding because of it in our small town.”

“From an ecotourism standpoint, the project will also help bring in more bird watchers and nature lovers,” said Ward. The DuPont Nature Center, which is adjacent to the project site, has received a number of school children recently who come to learn about the importance of the restoration work and see it via mounted telescopes and a remote TV camera set-up to watch the birds out on the far shore. On lucky days, post-migration season, a stray Red Knot may appear! Last year, Delaware welcomed over 9 million tourists to the”First State” creating great income for the shore towns.

The project is especially important to Bill McSpadden, a resident who has lived in Slaughter Beach all his life, and where he now owns his grandparents’ cottage.

“It’s been something that I’ve been involved with for a really, really long time. I’ve been flipping horseshoe crabs since I could walk. That is just what we did down here,” said McSpadden. “It’s great when we can combine projects, like the Mispillion Harbor restoration. It benefited humans, but it also benefited habitats and the species that live there, which is fabulous. It’s money well spent.”

“There are more birds out there than you could imagine during peak migration,” Ashe said. “It’s a beautiful sight.” On a recent visit, over 15 species of migratory shorebirds were counted.

When viewing shorebirds, visitors are reminded to keep their distance and take care not to disturb the birds as they need as much time to feed as possible before they move on.

By Mike Smith, Special Correspondent for Hurricane Sandy projects with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

For the story as it originally appears, please visit here.